The Pitfalls of E-Books

E-Books present challenges for public libraries

5 June 2013

I admit it: For someone who writes about the benefits of technology, I still have not embraced e-books. I did download one book on my iPad, but just didn’t care for the experience of reading it on that device. The iPad was heavy to hold while reading, a bit of a strain on my eyes, and ran down my battery.

I still prefer to get my books the old-fashioned way: I go to my local public library and check them out.  If I’m going on a trip, I make a point of visiting the library to get paperbacks to take with me on the plane. I still get a thrill out of walking into the building and being greeted by thousands of books, perusing the aisles, and reading the book jackets to see which ones spark my interest. I’ll even check out five or six books at a time just in case one bores me. I enjoy the comfort of knowing others are readily available to me. And best of all, the books are free.

While I may not be a fan of e-books, others are and they also would like to get them for free, from their public library, but they are encountering roadblocks.

Clifford A. Lynch, executive director of the Coalition of Networked Information, wrote in a recent American Library Association (ALA) report that e-books have failed to deliver on much of their promise. They are “becoming a weapon capable of considerable social damage; a Faustian technology that seduces with convenience, particularly for those who consume a great many books, but offers little else while extracting a corrosive toll on our social institutions,” he says.

Lynch specifically takes issue with barriers facing public library patrons. He says some major publishers are severely constraining libraries’ access to their e-books; some are charging very high prices, renting books to libraries for a limited number of loans or a limited time period, or both. Random House, for example, increased its e-book prices by 100 to 200 percent in March 2012, according to ALA.

He explains this policy constricts libraries’ long-term ability to carry out their mission of free and open access to materials and information, and the public is unaware this is happening. He says that even when libraries can successfully license e-books, delivery is a problem because while publishers make it easy for consumers to download a book on various devices, they make it quite complex for library patrons to do so. This causes them to believe it’s the fault of the library—not the publisher—and they often wind up purchasing the e-book instead.

Unlike traditional books, e-books can’t be lent to friends, given as a gift, resold, or donated to a public library. That’s because in most cases individuals don’t actually own books under most license agreements, and the licenses aren’t transferrable. Lynch says if you try to get around the license agreements, you could face not only technical obstacles, but also civil and criminal liability with some harsh penalties.

Another point he brings up is that the survival and stability of e-books are tied into the survival of the provider. The ability to continue to use a book on a reading platform, to move it from one platform to another, or to transfer a license all depend on the e-book provider continuing to exist and operate the necessary infrastructure. That is playing out now with Barnes & Noble and its Nook e-reader, according to a recent Digital Trends article, “Can the Nook Keep Barnes & Noble Alive in a Post-Paperback World?”

“If [e-books] are going to become a viable replacement for printed books within our society, rather than an alternative format of convenience, they must be customer-owned (or perpetually licensed with reasonable license terms that mimic ownership), standards-based, non-DRM [digital rights management]-protected digital objects that can easily be moved from one platform to another,” Lynch says.

Do you think publishers should make it easier for public libraries to lend e-books and if so, would you borrow them from your local library? In this increasingly digital world, do you think libraries and printed books still have a place?

Photo: Andriy Kravchenko/iStockphoto

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